One-Stop Returning

A group of manufacturers is quietly pushing a fully automated anonymous return system that can print out receipts for rival retailers. The largest retailers are buying in.

Youre cleaning away papers that accumulated during the holidays and find a portable CD player that is identical to the one you use every day. It was given to you as a gift and you have no receipt, nor any clue where it was purchased.

On a whim, you take the CD player to your favorite local retailer. Customer service scans the item, reports to you the date it was purchased and the name of the retailer it was purchased from, tells you that the other retailers rules give you four more days to return it, and hands you a freshly printed receipt for you to use for that return.

/zimages/3/28571.gifMany thieves view the holidays as "The Season of Taking." To read more about the latest methods to stop the bandits, click here.

That little-known capability is available today at some of the nations largest retailers, if the consumer knows about it and if the retailer wants to offer it in that way.

This is thanks to a huge centralized database from a company called Siras, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nintendo. One of the reasons its so popular with retailers is that the service is free to them, as it is entirely paid for by a large group of major manufacturers, including Compaq, Bissell, AT&T, Apex, Emerson, Fujifilm, General Electric Co., Hewlett-Packard Co., Magnavox, Panasonic, Phillips, RCA, Sony, Sega, Sylvania and many others.

Currently participating retailers include Wal-Mart,, Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, Frys Electronics, JCPenney, KB Toys, Kmart, RadioShack Canada, Sears, Toys R Us, Babbages and Spiegel.

The system has its limits. First, its limited to selected products from sponsoring manufacturers.Its also limited to participating retailers, and each retailer can select how much information it will share with product-returning consumers.

Siras efforts are sidestepping the controversial efforts of another database-based returns company, The Return Exchange. The Return Exchange, which has incurred the wrath of one U.S. senator and various privacy groups, allows retailers to track returns by customer.

In theory, The Return Exchanges database would allow a retailer to quickly identify frequent returners (especially those considered possibly fraudulent) and block their efforts. Sen. Chuck Schumer has attacked the database as enabling "secret store blacklists."

Siras efforts are very different. Its system is entirely customer-agnostic, providing the full anonymity that privacy advocates have been insisting on. Siras database identifies only the products, not the customers, said Siras President Peter Junger.

/zimages/3/28571.gifTo read more about the war against retail return abuses, click here.

"We go through great pains to not collect any customer information whatsoever," Junger said in an interview. "We simply take the fingerprint of the product."

That fingerprint is the companys unique product identifier, which is primarily a combination of the UPC number and the products serial number. The Siras database—which is housed only at the main Siras facility in Redmond, Wash.—is integrated into the retailers existing POS system.

The products unique identifier is then married to data the system picks up from participating retailer POS systems, such as the date the product was sold, the store name, the store number and even the selling employee.

"We also know that retailers terms and conditions for that sale and their returns policy," Junger said. Those policy issues are also married to the products code, allowing the system to not only know when that item was purchased, but whether that date qualifies for that product to be returned to that retailer. The manufacturer adds in its information to the database, too, so that the system can know, for instance, what accessories the product shipped with.

The system can also memorize the identification of any employee who processes a return, to assist with fraud prevention. Junger said one retail employee discovered that capability when he was charged with theft by processing beyond-the-term returns for a friend.

Next Page: How the returns system works.